Tag Archives: Belgian

CAPSULE: HARPYA (1979) / APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BOBBY YEAH (2011)

Weirdest!(both films)

“You can do anything in animation” is a truism, a promise of unlimited potential that is frequently untapped beyond a surface-level dive into the unusual. Enough people stumble at “the animals can talk?” issue to make it unfair to expect more. However, it is also true that those filmmakers who are willing to go deeper into the realm of the possible do so with gusto. And so we arrive at a pair of short films that readily embrace the horror that ensues from making the wrong choice.

Raoul Servais’ legend in animation circles is due in large part to 1979’s Harpya. (The film won the Palme d’Or for short films at that year’s Cannes Film Festival.) The tale of a man who saves the life of a horrible-beautiful creature, only for it to methodically destroy his life, is a very simple demonstration of cause and effect.

When he intervenes to stop what looks like a cold-blooded murder, the action seems noble and moral. His decency continues when comes home with the near-victim, a giant, feathered, bare-breasted creature, but his good intentions immediately backfire. The house guest eats everything, denying the man even a morsel, and when he attempts to leave, the monster eats his legs for good measure. Even when he manages to distract the beast and escape the house, she pursues him and takes his food once more, leading him to attempt to murder her himself. It’s like a horror version of One Froggy Evening.

Servais’ technique is what lifts the movie into the rare air of our consideration. Using a method of his own invention, he shot live-action footage and projected animated settings onto the film using clear sheets. The result is something like a daguerreotype given life.

There’s a troubling undercurrent of misogyny in the film, however. In fairness to Servais, this is not explicit, but inherent in the mythological character he is invoking. (For his own part, Servais has described Harpya as a parody of a vampire tale.) If anything, it presents the danger of reading too deeply into a story; the harpy functions quite sufficiently as a movie monster, but it’s all too easy to infer a manifesto. In my research, I found at least one review that unironically celebrated the film as an attack on the shrewishness of women, which is pretty awful but speaks to the power of the piece.

Robert Morgan’s Bobby Yeah is less likely to garner sociological blowback, but only because it’s so much more obviously grotesque. Where Servais’ harpy was a lone example of a disgusting supernatural, everything in Bobby Yeah is bloody or slimy or both. That includes our ostensible protagonist, a bunny-eared, troll-faced creature who makes trouble for himself by literally pushing other people’s buttons.

The little rabbit guy is a classic protagonist who keeps stumbling from one terrible situation into another. Of course, he’s hideous, but he earns a tiny amount of sympathy by being the least hideous thing in the film. At every turn, he confronts a new bruised and twisted creature, often displaying unmistakably phallic characteristics and ready to attack the bunny guy for his most recent misdeed. (The film is replete with symbolism, particularly sexual, but it has significant impact even before you start to delve.) It’s an unrelentingly anxious 23 minutes, replete with violence, body horror, and building dread.

The eyes are often the giveaway in CGI animation, the evidence of unreality that disrupts the sense of reality. In Morgan’s production, the eyes have the opposite effect: disturbingly realistic eyes that peer out of misshapen doll faces, wall ornaments that resemble pizzas, and koosh-ball-headed serpents that stare out with unnerving authenticity. While the production design may seem to earn the title of “grossest film of all time,” it should be noted that the physical revulsion is easily matched by the psychic discomfort that lingers. Bobby Yeah isn’t just gross; it’s gross in very powerful ways.

As noted, you can do anything in animation, but what’s interesting is when a filmmaker really wants to do anything. Servais and Morgan both tap into primal fears that by turns intrigue and appall. Harpya packs a lot of horror and surrealism into its eight minutes, but it’s ultimately too slight to earn a place in the Apocrypha. Bobby Yeah, however, has the advantages of being longer and more viscerally unsettling. It’s a genuinely transcendent and transgressive work, and it’s worthy of future consideration as a candidate. Both movies, though, have a lengthy half-life in the brain, showing how a burst of animation can easily take up residence in your scared, scarred soul.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘…a fantastic surreal film…” – Dr. Grob’s Animation Review on “Harpya”

“…the stuff of surreal nightmares. It just goes to show that there are fertile imaginations out there creating weird and wonderful worlds for us to explore.” – Jude Felton, The Lair of Filth on “Bobby Yeah”

(“Harpya” was nominated for review by Absanktie and “Bobby Yeah” was nominated by Russ. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS (1971)

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DIRECTED BY: Harry Kümel

FEATURING: Delphine Seyrig, John Karlen, Danielle Ouimet, Andrea Rau

PLOT: After marrying on a whim in Switzerland, Stefan and Valerie find themselves in a grand hotel where the mysterious Countess Báthory and her companion Ilona are the only other guests.

COMMENTS: It’s just as well that Olstend’s “Grand Hotel Thermes” is nearly empty during the off season—its cavernous hallways, regal stairways, and spacious suites can barely contain the thick layers of Eurotrash that pile up the moment Stefan, Valerie, the Countess, and her “secretary” come in from the rain. This gang of sex-dripping ’70s stereotypes jostle with one another for the title of Maximus Libidinosus. Is it the new bride, Valerie, often topless and presenting an innocence that belies her eagerness? Is it creep-hunk Stefan, who nearly loses it when recounting the sadistic methods of a medieval Hungarian noblewoman? Is it deer-in-headlights Ilona, when she lingers in the nude outside of Valerie’s window the first night she meets her?

No, no, and no. This is Countess Elisabeth Báthory’s party, despite the fact she doesn’t appear until the second act. Aged somewhere between twenty-five and one-hundred or more, this long-lived, ever-beautiful femme out-fatales all the wavy-haired blonde bomb-shells that came before her. With cryptic mannerisms and more-cryptic asides, Delphine Seyrig owns the screen whenever she graces it, for better or worse. The jalopy of a plot putters along with just enough horsepower to sustain its goings on, which themselves have just enough obligatory allusions to a story that it could be argued to have one. But Daughters of Darkness is allegory, and a very lesbian kind of allegory. The “V” of seduction (with the Countess at the hub) may just as well conjure the word “vaginal”… or, if one is so inclined, “vampyre.” This is a gloriously shameless exploration of sapphic love, layered thick with electronic musical cues, heightened acting, colored lighting, and, whenever the filmmakers remember it, arcane overtones.

It’s a good midnight movie, with an atmosphere you could hang a heavy jacket on. But it is a product of its time, and its budget. Amidst the array of sensuality, sex, and sadism, there is one item that stands out, and which remained, perhaps woefully, underexplored. A key plot point—and impending film spoiler—involves Stefan’s reticence in telling his mother that he has married a young woman in Switzerland. The excuse for this trepidation is that his family is very aristocratic, and his mother would be damned before recognizing such an off-the-cuff flight of matrimonial whimsy. However, we finally meet Stefan’s mother at the film’s halfway point, and find him to be not quite what we might expect. A middle-aged man, in a woman’s lounging dress, decorated in make-up, reclining on a hammock in the middle of a conservatory. He describes Stefan’s wedding gambit not so much as inappropriate as “unrealistic”. Who is this? What are he and Stefan? And how about that butler kneeling for a much-appreciated pat on the head upon delivering Mother the telephone? No matter. Within moments, we’re back to the gauzy layers of obvious questions weaving gracefully around this new and unexpected one. Class, discuss.

Blue Underground released a remastered special edition Blu-ray of Daughters of Darkness in 2022 with three separate commentary tracks and numerous special features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange and beautiful, it’s a perfect cocktail of the weird, the horrible, and the oh-so-sexy. “–Cait Kennedy, But Why Tho? (2020 festival rerelease)

CAPSULE: MOTHER SCHMUCKERS (2021)

Fils de plouc

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Mother Schmuckers is currently available for VOD rental.

DIRECTED BY: Harpo Guit, Lenny Guit

FEATURING: Maxi Delmelle, Harpo Guit

PLOT: Issachar and Zabulon must find the family dog or be evicted.

COMMENTS: In keeping with the spirit of the film, this will be my one and only single-paragraph review. Anything beyond that first sentence would be utterly unperceived by the lead characters, two brothers who crash from one chaotic outburst to another without any thought beyond the next maddening moment. Trigger warnings are appropriate, I think, for a film that takes such impressive leeway with animal well-being: violence, sex, cooking, all in the efforts to retrieve the family dog. Mother Schmuckers will leave you addled, as two semi-feral variants of Dumb and Dumber‘s Harry and Lloyd crash around a Belgian city causing havoc whilst thwacking each other. The French title, translating roughly into “slobby sons” or “sons of a slob,” is more apt than the English version’s play on a common phrase. I’ll spare you my rambling list of shockers and let the still above do half of the heavy lifting, and the following remark do the rest: the opening scene has our boys frying up shit for breakfast. Mother Schmuckers has an audience, and although it wasn’t me—and probably isn’t you, either—I will admit that I was never bored, and occasionally laughed aloud despite myself. Beyond that, Guit and Guit are to be commended for somehow securing funding for this manic outing, even if a major backer was an incorporated Belgian tax dodge—er, shelter. Through the wincing and guilt-smirking, this writhing nonsense left me shuddering, “What the schmuck?”

At the time of publication, Mother Schmuckers is in limited theatrical release, with video-on-demand scheduled to arrive on March 15.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Co-writer/co-director duo Harpo and Lenny Guit’s apparent disregard for their viewers’ comfort can sometimes be quite funny, depending on your tolerance for messy, meandering absurdist comedy… Imagine a disorienting European hybrid of Adult Swim’s stoner-friendly cartoons and the proudly crass dorm-room sitcom staple ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.’ Pretty weird, right?”–Simon Abrams, RogerEbert.com (contemporaneous)

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2021: HOTEL POSEIDON (2021)

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DIRECTED BY: Stefan Lernous

FEATURING: Tom Vermeir, Anneke Sluiters

PLOT: The reluctant owner of a decrepit hotel deals with an incoherent nightmare of sultry guests, a sketchy pal who’s turning the ballroom into a happening nightclub, and a “sick” aunt.

Still from Hotel Poseidon (2021)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Although it may be lacking in narrative, if a movie can be honored as one of the weirdest ever made based purely on art direction, Hotel Poseidon is a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Hotel Poseidon is where you go if you die in Hotel Earle and your soul can’t find its way to Heaven. The building looks like it’s been underwater for fifty years and has only recently surfaced: the daily mail arrives already soaked and caked in mud, electrical fires are so frequent they’ve become only a minor annoyance, and the lobby is so cavernous that at first you don’t even notice the body tucked away in the corner. The visual sensibility is dingy, dirty and grungy, and you half expect to see a strand of seaweed fall across the lens every now and then. The Hotel is the main character, while lead actor Tom Vermeir, in the role of depressive and put-upon owner Dave, acts as its sad-sack sidekick. Hotel Poseidon is a crumbling edifice waiting for a movie worthy of its magnificent setting—a movie that, unfortunately, never arrives.

Though Hotel Poseidon doesn’t have much story to tell, it does feature two exhibitions of inspired camerawork to showcase its astonishing set. The first is the opening shot, a spiraling pan around the hotel lobby which starts on a dead fish in a half-empty tank and spins around to survey the room’s clutter of decrepit knickknacks, peeling wallpaper, dying plants, malfunctioning equipment, and unattended fires, giving you a sense of the purgatorial landscape you’ll be inhabiting for the next ninety minutes. The other lasts for about four minutes, as the camera weaves through Dave’s encounters with the pasty-faced grotesques attending some sort of prom of the living dead that’s broken out in his newly-renovated ballroom, a sequence that somehow involves him winding up on an autopsy table before escaping into the elevator; it’s the capper to a succession intricately-choreographed shots that comprise the central “party” sequence,  the film’s best segment (which could have been a winner as a standalone short film).

If this all sounds pretty weird to you, then you’re not wrong. Hotel Poseidon trends towards a “” tag. And, in terms of art direction and cinematography, the movie is far above normal standards. Unfortunately, it succumbs to a common ailment afflicting full-length surrealist features: a failure to provide a meaningful plot structure, thematic tissue, or characters we are capable of empathizing with. There is no real story, and the few recurring subplots—a sexy young visitor who insists on renting a room despite being told the hotel is permanently closed, Dave’s ailing aunt and her pension—-circle a clogged drain for ninety minutes before the film ends up back where it started. Hotel Poseidon is simply a long succession of unsettling scenes in a common setting, many of which work on an individual level, but fail to build upon each other, leading only to a downbeat experience that’s too one-note to support the film’s length. Hotel Poseidon is the first film venture financed by the Belgian avant-garde theater company Abbatoir Fermé, and there there is great talent involved; but the technique and atmosphere languish because the film doesn’t give us much reason to care what happens to its characters.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a celebration of the weird, the absurd and the surreal, constantly adding new layers of wonder, forcing its audience to sit back in submission and let the film wash over them.”–Niels Matthijs, Onderhond (festival screening)

CAPSULE: RAW (2016)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Julia Ducournau

FEATURING: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

PLOT: A vegetarian girl develops an insatiable craving for meat after she eats a rabbit kidney as part of a veterinary school hazing ritual.

Still from Raw (2016)

COMMENTS: As Justine, a veterinary whiz-kid, Garance Marillier seems to grow up before our eyes. She begins the film as a timid girl looking younger than her eighteen years, submissive to her parent’s cult-like adherence to a stern vegetarian creed (Mom raises holy hell when she finds a cafeteria worker has accidentally ladled a chunk of sausage into her daughters’ mashed potatoes). Later in the movie, after Justine has tasted organ meat and experienced college life, we see her gyrating drunkenly in front of a mirror in too much lipstick and a slutty dress, listening to a distaff rap about a gal who likes to “bang the dead.” A lot of people indulge in pleasures of the flesh when they go away to college, but Raw gets ridiculous.

Raw is rich with coming-of-age subtexts—sibling conflicts, youthful irresponsibility, conformity, social and intellectual insecurity, bullying, bodily changes, bulimia—all of them given an unnerving horror spin. Naturally, sex is the dominant subtext. Under peer pressure, Justine betrays her abstinence and, now conflicted, finds herself drawn towards her new carnal/carnivore nature, and the appetites and danger that comes with it.

The veterinary school setting allows Ducournau to include a lot of animalistic symbolism, which verges from the poetically frightening (a horse chained to a treadmill) to the disgusting (a cow rectum cleaned by hand). Raw‘s focus is on bodily functions—eating, puking, excreting, arousal—all of it serving to remind Justine that she, too, is an animal. There are even hints of bestiality, and at one point Justine roleplays as a dog.

Raw‘s story is told with more abstraction than is strictly necessary, making it into a somewhat dreamlike impression of the anxieties of experiencing adult freedom for the first time. The hazing rituals at veterinary college are exaggerated to a ridiculous degree: masked upperclassmen burst into freshman dorms like the secret police rounding up dissidents. The inductees are compliant, and a ritual that seems like victims being led to the gas chamber segues seamlessly into a kegger. The faculty allows students to attend class while soaked with blood. People react to severed fingers with less consternation that one might expect. A Lynchian old man playing with his dentures in the emergency room waiting area seems to be the only one in the movie who understand that something odd is going on. But you will notice. Raw is a thoroughly disturbing parable about discovering your own true nature.

After originally being released on a bare-bones DVD only, Shout! Factory gave Raw the deluxe Blu-ray treatment in 2021, complete with a director’s commentary track, interviews and Q&As, deleted scenes, and more.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“I’ll spare you the graphic details, which is more than this fearlessly bizarre film does, but ‘Raw’ takes on the politically incorrect subject of devouring females, and lends new meaning to giving someone the finger.”–Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Sam Smith. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

“Often when we go to the cinema we feel like we’re being taken for fools because things we have instantly understood are laboriously explained. Here it’s a little the other way round.”–Olivier Smolders

Weirdest!

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Olivier Smolders

FEATURING: Fabrice Rodriguez, Yves-Marie Gnahoua, Iris Debusschere

PLOT: A solitary entomologist works at a natural history museum in a world where it is only light for fifteen seconds a day. One day, he comes home to his empty apartment and discovers an African woman sleeping in his bed. She is ill and pregnant and eventually dies, leaving him to deal with the body.

Still from Nuit Noire (2005)

BACKGROUND:

  • Olivier Smolders was born in the Congo, which explains the source of the film’s African imagery.
  • A prolific short film maker, Nuit Noire is Smolders’ only feature film to date.
  • The movie received a very limited theatrical release even in its native Belgium, and did not appear in U.S. theaters (outside of a few film festivals) at all. Little has been written about Nuite Noir in the English language (an only a little more in French).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The African woman’s dead body turning into a pupae, then splitting open as a new life emerges.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: 15 seconds of sun; elephant in the alley; African corpse cocooning

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world of eternal midnight, with troubled dreams of dead children and troubling realities of sick foreign women who mysteriously show up in your bed, Nuit Noire manipulates time and concepts in ways that only film can. One woman changes into another, and then into another. This story could not take place in the light of day.

Short clip from Nuit Noire

COMMENTS: Closeups of squirming bugs a la Blue Velvet. A reserved protagonist taking care of a sick charge in his isolated apartment a la Eraserhead. Billowing red curtains a la… every Continue reading 274. NUIT NOIRE [BLACK NIGHT] (2005)

CAPSULE: THE BRAND NEW TESTAMENT (2015)

Le Tout Nouveau Testament

Recommended

 

 

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Pili Groyne, Benoît Poelvoorde, Yolande Moreau,

PLOT: God, who’s something of a jerk, lives in an inaccessible high-rise apartment in Brussels; rebelling from his authoritarian control, his 10-year old daughter hacks his computer and leaks humanity’s death dates, then goes to Earth to write a new Gospel.

Still from The Brand New Testament (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: In the earlier days of this site, a movie like The Brand New Testament would easily have been shortlisted as a candidate. But with available slots on the List of the Weirdest Movies Ever Made shrinking, the field grows more competitive by the week. In a way, with two entries already on the List, Jaco Van Dormael is a victim of his own success—and this high-concept comedy is not as weird as Toto the Hero or Mr. Nobody, although the Catherine Deneuve bestiality subplot nearly puts him over the top one more time.

COMMENTS: Since nothing can come from Nothing, God seems to be an ontological necessity. Yet, our fatally flawed world of starving children, male nipples, and Kanye singles argues against the existence of a perfect, benevolent Supreme Being. There is one way to reconcile this seeming paradox, however. What if God exists, but He’s not a pure and loving spirit: in fact, he’s not only imperfect, but a mildly sadistic bastard? Such a God would perfectly accord the necessity for a First Cause with our experience of life on this planet as frequently annoying, sometimes torturous, and genuinely tragic—besides explaining the whole “made in His image” thing.

Jaco van Dormael takes this whimsical philosophical proposition as the basis for his fantasy The Brand New Testament, a congenially blasphemous lark that winkingly rewrites Christian theology to tweak human nature. This God—played with wicked gusto by a perpetually peeved Benoît Poelvoorde in a ratty bathrobe—is a petty tyrant who delights not only in crashing planes but in setting up universal laws of annoyance, such as the cosmic rule that toast must always fall to the floor jam side down. So intolerable is his reign of terror that his eldest son, J.C., ran away from home to slum around Earth, embarrassing his father with his hippie antics. (“The kid said a lot of stuff on the spur of the moment,” God explains to a scandalized priest). J.C.’s sister, Ea, is now set to follow big bro’s example, climbing down to Earth via a magical dryer duct to escape her Father’s wrath after she hacks his computer and leaks the death dates of all of humanity, freeing them to live their remaining days to the fullest. The girl then sets about recruiting six new apostles, each of whom comes with their own mini-story, dramatized in segments like “The Gospel According to the Sex Maniac.”

The Brand New Testament is sprawling and ambitious, but despite a plot that wanders wide, it centers itself with a consistently off-center wit. The more you know your Bible, the more you’ll laugh (“not at my right hand!” objects an angry God when Ea sits down to dinner). The scenario is so absurd, and the underlying message so humanistic, that only the most humorless Bible-thumper could take offense at Poelvoorde’s clearly farcical deity. Van Dormael slips surreal gags into the interstices of the already fantastic film: an ice-skating hand, a chanson-singing ghost fish, and Deneuve’s simian liaison. The ending is a feminist apocalypse where the patriarchal God is sent into exile and the universe rebooted with flowery skies, male pregnancies, and the return of the Cyclopes.

Belgian Van Dormael’s movies are similar to the solo work of , without a giant blockbuster hit like Amelie but with an oeuvre that, overall, has been both smarter and more consistent than that of the more famous Frenchman. With a small body of only five feature films full of philosophical ambition, wit, visual imagination, and thorough weirdness, he gets my vote for the world’s most underappreciated master filmmaker.

Despite having a role that’s no bigger than any of the other six apostles, Catherine Deneuve gets third billing. You can understand why. Her iconic presence dignifies the film, and her support for the project helped Van Dormael recover from the economic disaster of Mr. Nobody.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a surreal comedy whose endless visual imagination matches its conceptual wit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)